Getting the Most Out of the Reader’s Notebook

Teaching reading using interactive notebooks can increase students’ intrinsic motivation to read.

July 1, 2024
FG Trade / iStock

Like other upper elementary educators, I’m always thinking about ways to help my students succeed as readers. When it comes to reading, we often hear terms like comprehension, summarizing, background knowledge, and vocabulary. But I want students to experience the joys, not just the techniques, of literacy. 

I’ve been fortunate to participate in a reading fellowship at the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching, where my mentor and I sat down to create a yearlong goal; mine was an inquiry: “This year,” I wrote, “I will create content structured for high-level learning so that students will deepen their thought process about the stories and characters they read as demonstrated in their reader’s notebooks and conversations.”

To the naked eye, a reader’s notebook is an ordinary spiral-bound notebook. However, over the course of a school year in my classroom, the notebook takes on its own identity. It becomes a space for students to reflect on what they are reading, and when students look back over their entries, they witness their growth as readers. 

The notebooks allow me, as a teacher, to take a genuine look at what reading strategies students absorb and what books they’re interested in. Here’s how to make the reader’s notebook meaningful in your classroom.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls 

In their book What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow?, Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser share that when they asked students why they thought the reader’s notebook was important, students answered with remarks like “To show the teacher I did my work.” 

At the beginning of the year, I occasionally meet students with a similar mindset. Instead of thinking deeply about reading, a student may be stuck in “all done” mode, meaning they’ve read silently, and that’s all they’re going to do. 

Sometimes reader’s notebooks become places to glue dittos (duplicated worksheets); these may look educational but don’t promote deep connections with texts. The goal of my reader’s notebooks is to create spaces where students can express themselves instead of merely filling out worksheets. 

At times, teachers assign specific days for students to use notebooks, but I prefer to have a more fluid approach. During independent reading times, I place the notebooks next to my students. Some write reflections when they have an emotional reaction. It’s common for me to read, “I was shocked when…” or “I think…” Reading this language helps me see what they connect to. When the students go about it this way, the notebook is woven into the fabric of reading time and fosters more meaningful engagement.

Launching The Notebook

To implement the reader’s notebook, decide in advance when you’ll want students to use it. For example, it’s important to me that my students write about books they’re going to discuss with partners, so I have the students get them out from their bins in advance of that work. 

Similar to a writer’s notebook, the reader’s notebook has to become a special space. To make each notebook warm and inviting, encourage your students to decorate their covers (my class had a sticker session). 

Then, to give students more experience with the notebook, model specific reading and note-taking strategies during interactive read-alouds or groups. For example, at the end of an interactive read-aloud, I may say, “Stop and jot. What’s the author’s message?” Because students have practiced using the strategy during an interactive read-aloud, they can use it independently in their notebooks. Another strategy that I like to teach involves asking students what advice they may have for the main character of a story. This always helps my students think deeply about the character.

It’s important to remember that writing looks different for everyone. We should celebrate students’ thoughts about the stories they read. I frequently say to my students, “Which entry are you proud of this week?” They choose, and I hang the passage on the wall of my classroom. While drafting, revising, editing, and publishing work hold a value in the writing process, the reader’s notebook isn’t a book report; it allows us to celebrate the journey instead of the end result.

Scaffolding and Assessment

Many teachers are familiar with the use of sentence starters—using phrases as prompts for reflection. My opinion on them is mixed. I want meaningful reflection that comes from the hearts and minds of young readers. If a student feels successful reflecting with a meaningful sentence starter like “I predict…” or “I wonder…,” then I view the sentence starter as scaffolding. However, I want my students to make intrinsically motivated choices about which strategies they use, so I don’t assign particular sentence starters, instead allowing students to pick which ones resonate; as my students grow as readers, their thought processes around these scaffolds develop as well. 

While a running record of student reflections may show me how the student answered questions about a passage of text, the reader’s notebook also shows me what specific reading strategies they can independently use. This type of documentation allows me to use the notebooks as a form of meaningful assessment.

Reader’s notebooks help me reflect on ways I can adjust my instruction. And they help me build more choice into reading curricula, since I get a sense of what resonates with my students. Reading is about planting seeds of knowledge. Reflecting in reader’s notebooks is an opportunity to watch those seeds grow. 

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  • Literacy
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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